Eastward, to the Wild West…

February 21st, 2019

Fourteen people in the back of a Chevy pickup was the best ride we could land at the Iran/Afghanistan border. The ride was ameliorated by a rather spiffy paved road after the usual haggle over fare and a long ride to Herat, and by the driver sharing his bread and meat with us.

Herat is the largest city in western Afghanistan and we arrived well after dark, deposited in front of the Hotel Behzad, where the driver no doubt got a kickback for steering us to them. No complaints from Nelson or I. It even had a restaurant. Lots of shops on the street selling sheepskin jackets and vests, haute couture for hippies in those days…and at one of them we were offered, for a dollar, what we later took as a measurement of quantity in our discussions, a ‘doorknob’ of hashish. Afghanistan was turning out to be a rather fine place!

Morning tea in Herat

The next day was spent cashing another Travelers Check, another two hour or so process at the bank that included a visit to the Room For The Counting Out Of Money, a solemn process. And we got to peer into the Room The For Taping Together Of Worn Out Paper Afghani Notes.

In daylight, with it’s rutted dirt streets and horse drawn carts, Herat had the air of a Wild West town in Texas a hundred years before. In this day, before AK-47s, the common armaments on the street were shotguns and the occasional muzzle loaded flintlock rifle, complete with mother-of-pearl inlaid stock . We managed to get a ride to the airport and purchase tickets across the country to the capital, Kabul. No airplanes were on the tarmac, but eventually a prop driven DC-3 lumbered out and we boarded for what was, after so many miles of bumpy, dusty roads in rather worse for wear vehicles of dubious reliability, a total luxury and well worth our ten dollar fare. The stewards were friendly and served us tasty roast beef and cheese sandwiches, a tasty apple and tasty coffee. The scenery below, first desert and then impressive snow capped mountain ranges, was quite the spectacle. Not something I’d ever seen before, considering my limited experience in airplanes anywhere. And by then I was completely comfortable around the shotgun wielding passengers and the handful of chickens and a goat also onboard.

For you, a special price

Anyone traveling like we were, in this part of the world, will have plenty of stories detailing all the ailments that can befall the wayward westerner trudging through the dirty streets and trying not to think about all the flies covering any food in the roadside shops and bazaars. Dysentery and a sore throat had bedeviled me for a couple of weeks and my diary from then has lots of notes as to what I ate and where to find decent food. And in Kabul, the place where we could eat and be reasonably sure we wouldn’t get sick(er) was the Khyber Restaurant. A little on the expensive side for us, but-strawberry pie! Mashed potatoes and gravy! Custard! And more strawberry pie!

Despite whatever intestinal discomfort I was feeling, I really liked this country. People were pretty laid back and friendly. It was also, in Afghanistan’s tortured history, probably as halcyon a time as any, in these days before the next war and the subsequent rise of the Taliban. Women could walk the streets in dresses and not wear a veil. They could, and did, go openly to school. The government was adept at playing off the Americans and the Russians, each vying for influence in this strategic country. Two years later, Loretta and I took the bus from Herat, south to Kandahar. At one point, our nice road, built by the friendly Americans, came to an abrupt end, only to be perfectly continued by a slight different, but equally nice one, built by the friendly Russians. One day in a park in Kabul, I managed to pass myself off as a Russian speaking my college Russian to an Afghani who spoke no English. Everything seemed low key and very far away from the politics of the time, as viewed from a westerner’s perspective. Once, after identifying my country as America, the fellow I was chatting with my looked at me quizzically and asked, “Is that in Australia?”

All your tinware needs in one place

Our time in Kabul ran out and we forged on towards India. The next stop was Jalalabad, a provincial capital of the eastern province and the last big town before crossing the Kyhber Pass and down from the high desert to Pakistan. It was a spectacular drive through rugged mountain passes and steep drop offs to rushing streams far below. Bus trouble gave us time to stretch out legs and admire the scenery before finally making it to that dusty and somewhat primitive looking town.

I have three short tales to tell of our two day stay in Jalalabad, awaiting Visa and transportation information.

I was still sick(ish) and in a cranky mood. Our first hotel room was a windowless high ceilinged box, hot and dusty and outfitted with a torture device that passed as a bed, a hammock-like fixture made with thick ropes and not much padding. About as comfortable as it sounds. At one point, frustrated and feeling sorry for myself, I decided, because I was at my wit’s end and had nothing to lose, to try and teleport myself home. So I lay on that cursed bed and did my damnest to imagine being anywhere else. I was not having much luck, due I was sure, to the buzzing of an especially annoying large fly in the room. I saw it alight on a chair and I picked up my canteen and heaved it at the offending insect. It missed but hit the chair, bounced onto the table top and came to rest right-side up! The unexpectedness of that shook me out of my sour mood and I laughed at myself before getting out of there to go find Nelson and see about getting a different hotel.

On the way, I met another hippie traveller with a backpack who I somehow learned was about 27, or five years or so older than me. I was heartened by meeting him and realizing one could still travel like this, when that old!

We did find another hotel with a much nicer room on the second floor. It was about eight feet wide and fifteen deep, with two side by side beds (real beds!) The front wall doubled as a door and looked out at the top of a utility pole with, I guessed conservatively, maybe 500 wires, cables and guys tied off to it from all angles and with no concern for where they crossed each other. PG&E would have a fit…

It was early evening and Nelson and I had just smoked a bowl, leaning back on out beds and watching the evening light outside compete with the dim bulb we had turned on in our room. Then, a hand came through a hole in the wall up at the front, felt around the wall, and turned off our light! A moment later after more fumbling, another switch on our wall was flipped and we could see a light through the hole in the wall come on in the adjacent room. For a moment, we had been wondering what we had just smoked…


Next up was the Khyber Pass. From the days of Rudyard Kipling on, this storied place has captured the imagination of any adventurous traveler in this part of the world.

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December 2021
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